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#‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Review: Netflix’s Live-Action Remake Is a Major Letdown

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Several times in Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang (Gordon Cormier), the 12-year-old chosen-one hero, calls for guidance from the spirits of his predecessors. And they oblige, appearing before him in a glowing blue aura to share their experiences or offer advice. But they remind him as well that each Avatar is different — that the role evolves with the needs of the times or the personality of the individual inhabiting it, that it’s on Aang now to figure out for himself what it means for him.

It is sage counsel that Avatar itself clearly wants to take to heart. The live-action drama is positioned not just as a remake of the Nickelodeon animated saga but as a corrective to the disastrous 2010 movie adaptation, and it gamely tries to incorporate the lessons of both while forging its own darker path forward. If the effort is admirable, however, the execution is decidedly not. Rather than breathe fresh life into a familiar world, this Avatar serves only to remind that some beloved properties might be better left on ice.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

The Bottom Line

Seriously, not everything needs a gritty live-action reboot.

Airdate: Thursday, Feb. 22 (Netflix)
Cast: Gordon Cormier, Kiawentiio, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu, Daniel Dae Kim, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Ken Leung
Developed by: Albert Kim, based on the series by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

Of course, by the logic of entertainment franchises, leaving well enough alone was probably never an option. So creator Albert Kim dusts off the premise that devotees of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s cartoon can surely recite by heart: “Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished.” Where Avatar 1.0 started out as a pleasant half-hour meander, though — having goofball Aang awaken from his century of accidental hibernation to befriend Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka, and only gradually building to harder conversations about peace, violence and conflict — this Avatar throws us right into the deep end. The opening minutes are filled with scenes of soldiers, spies, harrowing cruelty.

The choice renders the update more tightly serialized than the source material, and more superficially mature — all the better to appeal to folks who adored this tale as kids and are revisiting it now as adults, perhaps, or to draw in viewers looking to fill the time between Game of Thrones spinoffs. Unfortunately, it also flattens the story’s emotional landscape. Chief among Avatar‘s concerns is the cost of war, specifically as borne by children. Yet it’s difficult to appreciate how much Aang or Sokka (Ian Ousley) or Katara (Kiawentiio) have been forced to grow up when they start out already sober, responsible, wise beyond their years. Or to feel what they’re missing when we see precious little of the joy or fun in their world, but plenty of despair. Even the Stark brood got to chase cats or swoon over princes for a few episodes before getting put through the wringer by the Lannisters.

But Avatar‘s most fundamental issues come down to clunky writing and correspondingly awkward performances. This is a script that signals Aang’s ambivalence about his destiny by having him simply monologue it: “I know who I am. I like to play airball and eat banana cakes and goof off with my friends. That’s who I am. Not someone who can stop the Fire Nation. Not someone who can stop a war.” As if those words aren’t unnatural enough, they’re directed to a CG sky bison so inert it might as well be a tennis ball. When the lead trio make their way around the world, we’re told rather than shown that Aang is good with people, that he and Sokka and Katara are like family now, that the return of the Avatar has restored some vague sense of “hope” that disappeared when he did. (Avatar does not seem to have considered the possibility that in the absence of their savior, society might have found other sources of inspiration or purpose to rally around.)

The pleasures that nevertheless remain testify to the sturdiness of the original. Avatar continues to distinguish itself from Eurocentric fantasies like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings with its Asian- and Indigenous-inspired setting, this time complete with actors who (unlike most of those from either of the earlier iterations) actually hail from Asian and Indigenous backgrounds. The trio’s travels allow us to peek in on corners as varied as a bustling Earth Kingdom market or spirit realm populated by eerie and intimidating beasts. Not all the stops are equally interesting — and the middling CG visuals lack either the striking compositions of Apple TV+’s Foundation or the solidity of Disney+’s Andor — but in combination they suggest an expanse with no end of new places to explore or new people to meet.

The brightest elements of this universe mostly cluster around the Fire Nation, and not just because their flames are inherently more cinematic than the earthbenders’ floating rocks or the airbenders’ gusts of wind. (Whatever the discipline, few of the fight scenes are anything worth writing home about.) Aang might be the one referenced in the title, but Avatar‘s ideas and intentions are best exemplified in antagonist Zuko, a teenage prince with daddy issues that would make Kendall Roy wince with sympathy. Radiating rage and pain from every pore, actor Dallas Liu stays faithful to the character originated by Dante Basco while simultaneously embodying Zuko so fully that it seems the role has always been his. With help from more seasoned performers like Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Ken Leung and Daniel Dae Kim, Zuko’s redemption arc, rushed though it is, emerges as the only truly compelling through line of the show.

Given that the original Avatar has been hailed in many quarters (including this one) as one of the best series of the past few decades, living up to its memory was always going to be a nigh-impossible bar for any reboot or adaptation to clear. But the flaws plaguing this Avatar are entirely its own, separate from the unbearable weight of fan expectations. In its turn toward the dark, it forgets to make space for light. In reaching for lofty themes, it neglects the details and basics to make them land. In its impatience to grow up, it leaves its characters no room to evolve. And in all of these failings, it delivers an Avatar that, grittier though it may be, feels far less mature than the kids’ cartoon ever did.

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